THEOCRACY: On a “Rainy Night in Georgia” … and the “Reign” Kept Coming Down

Doc’s 688 mile “house call” road trip for a “check-up” on Theocracy – Prognosis = Vibrant, healthy and filled with shred.

The Need

As a physician, I am wholly committed to my community to be competent, conscientious and available to those I serve in illness and in health. As a result of the “grounded” nature of my calling, it is rare indeed when I can take to the road – in search and support of great music – to ply my analytical skills to the art of head banging. I reside in the mountains of Southwest Virginia and the only metal we have here has to do with guns, knives and moonshine … ah, but the metal calls … Needless to say, it is no small thing when the pieces of a complicated life come together to allow the good doctor to indulge in metal consumption. Saturday December 3rd seemed an unlikely day for a road trip, but when I heard that Theocracy would be delivering their North American debut show in support of Ghost Ship – their 4th studio release – in Marietta, Georgia on said day, something inside prodded me to make this happen, no matter what. Although I had interviewed Matt Smith in 2008 for the fanzine, I had never previously met him or any of the other band members. Sometimes things won’t happen, unless you make them happen, right? So I called my older son Matt, who is a senior graphic design student at Anderson University in Anderson, SC and asked him if he wanted to go with me, realizing that this time of the semester is “crunch time” for him. Somewhat to my surprise (although not totally because he loves Theocracy’s music), he was 100% on board. I purchased the tickets, cleared it with my wife – responsibilities to grandchildren steered her on a different course for that weekend – and made sure I was free of medical call. For me, though, for an event like this to happen, lots of things have to fall into place, not the least of them being that I am actually not afflicted with any of my patients’ afflictions prior to travel.

The Journey

All things seemingly in good order, my youngest son Andrew and I set course for Atlanta (via Anderson, SC) midday of December 3rd. As with most voyages, there are those unforeseen elements that seek to postpone or derail the mission. It hadn’t rained substantially in our region for almost 5 months, but not 2 hours into our trip the rain descended. We arrived in Anderson shortly before 1600 – completing the first 216 miles of the journey – to meet up with Matt, who would then pilot the final 128 mile push to Atlanta. We departed Anderson around 1645 hours, intent on a 1 hour 55min trip to Marietta, GA. All was well until we were about 70 miles east of Atlanta when darkness descended and traffic halted almost to a standstill. Where everyone was going at 6PM on a Saturday night I had no idea, but the rain, the darkness and the “beep and creep” travel made the next 2 hours a tedious drive, much of it filled with tense frustration and plenty of opportunities for car carnage. Finally, though, after a few close calls and a few missed turns we arrived at The Georgia 120 Tavern and Music Hall around 1920 hours, approximately 35 minutes later than expected.

The House Call

The Georgia 120 is a relatively small venue, the music hall attached to a sports bar and grill that was really cool but seemingly under-staffed for a Saturday night in North Atlanta. We managed to wrangle up some food (after about an hour) which was quite tasty while Brazen Angel (the opening band) ripped through their first, but brief (30 minute) set. Satiated we moved from the bar area into the music hall to catch the last few songs from the youthful Paladin, a really solid thrash act. I was sorry I didn’t get to see their entire set as they laid it down fast and furious, but the boys had to eat, after all.

The music hall doesn’t look like it can handle more than 500 souls, and it is standing room mostly with a small seating area in the back and an elevated bar on the side. But nobody was back there anyway because as the anticipation for Theocracy grew palpable, everyone pressed up toward the stage. After 7 shows in Europe in November, this would be the North American debut for the band – a band most of us in the audience had never had the opportunity to see live. During the sound check, we got our first glimpse of new drummer Ernie Topran (Halcyon Way) as he thudded his way along, dialing in his cool blue kit – beautiful in tone and appearance. When Jonathan Hinds and Val Wood gave us a few licks it became apparent that despite the small and intimate venue, the sound was going to be huge. This was confirmed when bassist Jared Oldham chimed in and also did the mic check.

Day prior to the show, the band had posted on Facebook that there would be a few surprises during their 75 minute set. None of them were bigger than the opening song – the 23 minute epic title track from the band’s sophomore release Mirror of Souls! I think at first I thought they would only play a few fragments from this and then move on to the new material. Nope. Instead they flawlessly pulled off their most musically complex and lyrically deep song ever (one Matt Smith referred to in the past as the best song he ever wrote). It was so profound and unprecedented that when the song concluded Smith cried out, “Thank you, goodnight!” I think some people missed the point because there wasn’t much laughter. After a few awkward seconds of silence Smith confessed that it was a bit crazy to open up their Ghost Ship debut show with a 23 minute song from their second album … then clarified that “we did that song for you guys/the fans” … and then, without further hesitation, they ripped into the tandem of the Iron Maiden-like “Paper Tiger” and catchy title track from the new album. It was like a switch was thrown going from the proggy “Mirror of Souls” into the heavy melodic metal and this had the effect to loosen the crowd up a bit. And if that was not enough, the speed onslaught of “Absolution Day” got everyone limber and moving around, especially during the middle galloping section. And while all of these songs sound polished on the recordings, they really come to life in the live setting, unleashing a fury of metallic output that is crushing. It is apparent the chemistry with Wood and Hinds has matured – they have developed a great dual-axe presence on stage as they trade off solos and riff in unison.

Things then slowed down a bit with “The Gift of Music” from As The World Bleeds – this song really featuring Matt’s vocals. This one had the crowd’s hands swaying in unison as Smith soared above the audience with power, passion and conviction. The driving instrumental “ride out” on this song really allowed Ernie Topran to give the crowd a taste of his speed, power and talent. Brilliant. In tribute to the Christmas season, the comical “Rudolph vs. Frosty” was up next. As most fans know, Theocracy has released a number of highly unorthodox (some reverent and some just for fun) Christmas tunes over the past decade – this one definitely in the latter category. Hilarious song – check out the lyrics. They returned to Ghost Ship on the final push with the tandem of “Around the World and Back” – a song which really came to life for me in the live setting, especially with the creative light show – and the fast and heavy “Castaway,” a song that really gets the blood flowing, the head bobbing with speedy double bass, shredding guitar solos and that absolutely killer hook in the chorus.

Not surprisingly, the band played their most iconic song “I Am” as an encore. As with the epic “Mirror of Souls,” this song goes through tons of rhythm and tempo changes but they pulled it off without a glitch.

The Assessment

Theocracy is the alive and well, vibrant and filled with shred. At the end of the night I was most impressed with just how “metal” this band really is. I think prog bands get labeled as finesse/technical freaks sometimes. While this band lacks nothing in technical skill, their emphasis is on the rhythms and melodies and power – many of these riffs absolutely crushing in the live setting. Wood is the quiet shredder, but Hinds and bassist Oldham move around on stage, creating a lot of energy with their presence. And while Matt Smith is a melodic singer, he belted out some impressive and deafening notes at times. I compare him more to Michael Sweet than a Dickenson or Halford in that regard. Finally, when I first heard Ghost Ship I knew it was a heavy metal record, but live – partly due to the sonics and largely due to the drum rhythms – there is a load of thrash cutting through.

Set List (Atlanta December 3, 2016)

Mirror of Souls

Paper Tiger

Ghost Ship

Absolution Day

The Gift of Music

Rudolph vs. Frosty

Around the World and Back


I Am

This is a great set list. Sure, it would have been nice to hear “The Wonder of It All” (my favorite song from the new release) or the metal anthem “A Call to Arms.” I’m sure these songs had to be set aside to accommodate “Mirror of Souls,” but I think fans will agree it was well worth it to hear that magnum opus live.

There were a few negative findings. The instruments were killer on sound check but as a unit the volume was almost too loud – making it difficult at times to hear the individual voices, sometimes most noteworthy during guitar solos. Matt Smith’s vocals crackled in distortion on a few songs as if the mic volume was up way too high, and it was hard to hear Oldham and Hinds when they chimed in with their vocal harmonies. Finally, Topran sounded a bit out of sync with the rest of the band on a few short instances but this wouldn’t be unexpected given the short seat time he’s had with this band. Probably few would have even noticed though as it was subtle. Overall, considering how little time he had to prepare, his performance was outstanding. He is solid as a rock, has some great facial gestures and is a beast back there driving the rhythm. Most importantly, his thrash/power metal style fits Theocracy perfectly, especially with the Ghost Ship material.

The Meet and Greet

Not surprisingly, these guys are pretty humble and accommodating. Matt Smith was surrounded by young people who came (with mostly dads) from near and far. I enjoyed watching the kids/teenagers during the show really digging this music and it was great to see them afterwards getting pictures with Smith and Hinds. My older son Matt took some pictures for a dad and his kids (with Smith) who had traveled all the way from Canada to see this show! And I found out later some folks from New Jersey did the same, so we were not the only ones who traveled from afar to witness this event. I found it really refreshing to see the mix of ages at a more traditional metal show, not unlike what I saw at the Iron Maiden – Maiden England tour a few years back.

 Matt and Matt

My son Matt and I also had the pleasure to meet and talk with most of the band (while Andrew enjoyed watching the Penn State vs. Wisconsin game at the bar). The highlight for me was presenting Matt Smith with a mint copy of the last issue of Heaven’s Metal (#78) to feature Theocracy on the cover before we went out of print. I had brought these copies along thinking it would be cool to have a copy signed by the band (which I did – see below). What I didn’t know when we left home was that Theocracy would be playing “Mirror of Souls” at this this show. Heaven’s Metal #78 was published at the time of the release of that great album – an album that would later make the Top 100 Christian Metal List of All Time. So that was pretty special.

Finally, I got to meet Ernie, the new drummer, and ask him how in the world he figured out all of these complex songs so quickly. Lots of repetition was his answer, but when he subbed in a few years ago for Theocracy he only had 10 days to learn the set list at that time, so he’s obviously a quick learner. He also said the set “bookends” of “Mirror of Souls” and “I AM” are pretty challenging, but that “I Am” while difficult is really a fun song to play.

Cool stuff at the merch table too.

They had a few of the ultra cool white LPs left.

The Return Trip

Ears ringing and souls satiated we departed the Georgia 120 at 2310 hours … in the pouring rain. I kept thinking how appropriate the rain was in light of the lyrics to the song “Mirror of Souls” – “and the rain keeps coming down…” Our trip back to Anderson was closer to the 2 hour mark and was highlighted by the Penn State comeback win over Wisconsin (I’m a PSU alum and my sons love them as well) which we were able to enjoy on the ESPN’s Gamecast app on my phone. We arrived in Anderson (still raining) at 0120 hours, Matt’s roommates still awake, and crashed in their apartment. (Thanks to Matt for getting us there and back safely.) Listening to the rain, as sleep descended upon me early that morning, I couldn’t help but reflect on Theocracy’s “rain” of inspiring and truthful lyrics and on the “reign” of God’s grace as it covers over us. My first thought upon awakening later in the morning … I need to look up the lyrics to “Rudolph vs. Frosty” – Do it … do it now!

After attending Matt’s church service in Anderson on Sunday morning and enjoying a wonderful lunch there with his fellow college students and girlfriend (thanks Capstone Church!), Andrew and I departed (around 1200 hours) for the final leg of the journey home … in the rain. It was an uneventful trip – with a short diversion to meet up with my wife – and we made it home in record time! Not surprisingly, the rain stopped not long after pulling in the driveway!

Post Mortem

Yes, the trip was more than worth any troubles we encountered along the way. If you get the chance to see Theocracy live, don’t hesitate, you won’t regret it. I asked the guys about adding some more shows to support Ghost Ship here in the States and they are definitely looking into it, so stay posted. Thanks to Theocracy for a great evening (it was great bonding time with my sons as well) and thanks to God for getting us there and back … and for the replenishing, much needed rain. Selah.

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